The Hamas militant group targeted Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening with dozens of missiles after Israel ramped up the intensity of its air strikes on the Gaza Strip.
The escalation threatened to turn a two-day round of hostilities into a broader conflict with unrest among the Arab population in Israeli cities.
Flights were diverted as the skies over central Tel Aviv were lit up by the defenses of Israel’s Iron Dome that tracked dozens of missiles at the same time. One hit a reportedly empty bus in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. At least six people have received medical care and more victims are expected.
The escalation came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered an extension of the Israeli air campaign in the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli military attempted to diminish Hamas’s operational capabilities with dozens of bombings targeting missile launch platforms and military commanders.
“Hamas will be hit here it did not expect,” Netanyahu said Tuesday night. Hamas responded with a vow to attack Tel Aviv, saying it had launched 130 missiles at once in a likely attempt to overwhelm Israeli air defenses.
Defense minister Benny Gantz, who has ordered 5,000 reserve troops to return to work, previously said Israel’s air campaign would continue until “its operational goals are met.”
Gaza authorities said 28 Palestinians had been killed, including nine children, although it was not clear whether all the deaths were the result of Israeli air strikes. A multi-story building in Gaza collapsed in an air raid.
Three Israeli civilians were killed and nearly a dozen were injured, Israeli medics said.
Israel has killed at least 20 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants, according to the Israel Defense Forces. As Israel carried out complex maneuvers, it warned that there would likely be civilian casualties. “Some of the [rocket] fire pits are embedded in the civilian population and it cannot be ruled out that civilian casualties will occur, ”he said.
After days of tension in Jerusalem, the militant group controlling Gaza on Monday night fired rockets at the city, the furthest in Israel they have reached since 2014. Israel immediately responded with dozens of targeted air strikes.
Hamas’s move came after Israeli police cleared Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque on Monday, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, injuring hundreds of Muslim protesters with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Palestinians are angry about the mosque’s restrictions and the planned expulsions of Arabs to make way for Jewish settlers.
Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials mediating between Israel and Hamas tried to restore calm, an Israeli official said Tuesday. Israel had turned down Hamas’ first ceasefire offer, Channel 12 TV reported.
The Arab League described Israel’s response in Gaza as “arbitrary and irresponsible” and “a miserable display of violence at the expense of children’s blood.”
White House spokesman Jen Psaki said Joe Biden, the US president, had received updates from his national security team and his primary focus was on de-escalation.
She said the US condemned rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups, including attacks on Jerusalem, and that Biden’s support for “the security of Israel, for his legitimate right to defend himself and his people, is fundamental and will never falter.”
“Jerusalem, a city so important to believing people around the world, must be a place of living together,” said Psaki.
The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet in closed session on Wednesday, diplomats said, to discuss the outbreak of violence.
As a sign of increasing unrest, riots broke out in several Israeli cities, including Lod, Ramle and Jaffa, each with a large Arab-Israeli population. Netanyahu moved border police battalions from the occupied West Bank to Lod, near Tel Aviv, after the mayor of the 80,000-strong city said the riots there “were too big for the police.”
Police said a patrol car was set on fire after crowds attended the funeral of an Arab man allegedly murdered by a Jewish resident, and the Haaretz newspaper reported that two synagogues and a Jewish school had been burned.
“This is a massive incident – an intifada [uprising] Arab Israelis, ”Lod Mayor Yair Revivo said on television.
There were also clashes in Hebron in the West Bank. “Yesterday there were wild disturbances here, which we cannot bear, by young hotheads. Our guideline is to do everything we can to maintain law and order, ”Netanyahu said.
Tensions had risen when a lawsuit over the deportation of the Arabs coincided with an annual Israeli celebration that began on Sunday called Jerusalem Day, when the Israelis celebrate their conquest of Arab East Jerusalem in 1967. The hearing has been postponed.
The violence comes at a precarious moment in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s position has weakened as coalition talks advance between his rivals, who are on the verge of securing a government that could dethrone the five-time prime minister. His right-wing supporters see the expulsions in East Jerusalem as an important part of a long-running strategy to replace Arabs with Jews in the Holy City.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo